Listen to the Dead

posted in: Springfield, IL History | 0

A walk through Oak Ridge Cemetery

By Cinda Ackerman Klickna

Roni Betts has been portraying historical characters since 2010. This year she’ll be portraying Rebecca Woods, a former slave who worked for Nicholas Ridgely, helping to raise his 13 children.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cemeteries were the first public parks. Women strolling with parasols and families spread out on blankets enjoying a picnic would be a common site. The living paid respect to their loved ones and celebrated their own lives. Oak Ridge Cemetery, no doubt, would have been a popular place here in Springfield.

The rolling hills and majestic trees of Oak Ridge Cemetery will be the site of the Sangamon County Historical Society’s “Echoes of Yesteryear: A Walk through Oak Ridge Cemetery,” which will remember and pay respect to seven people from Springfield. Mary Alice Davis, the chair of the event to be held Oct. 6, says, “The walk will provide a glimpse into the history and heritage of Springfield and Sangamon County.”

Actors and actresses in period costume will narrate accounts of people who have a connection to Springfield schools. The names are familiar: Bunn, Butler, Dubois, Matheny, Ridgely and Iles. Actors will portray the person or someone connected with the family. In addition, one of the first women to serve on the Springfield school board, Mary Morrison, will be portrayed.

Jacob Bunn (1814-1897), a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, founded the Illinois Watch Company, owned Bunn Capitol Grocery and started Marine Bank at the corner of Sixth and Washington. Bunn, known as a hard worker, died at his office. At his death at age 83 the Illinois State Journal wrote, “Despite his advanced age, Mr. Bunn was remarkably active to the very last and could perform more work than most men many years younger. No man played a more prominent or more important part in the upbuilding of the city of Springfield than Jacob Bunn.”

Bunn School was built in 1905 by the Springfield architectural firm Helmle and Helmle, known for designing many schools, businesses and homes that are still standing in Springfield. Bunn School, though, which was at 12th and Division streets, was demolished in 1974.

Linda Schneider has been an actor in many cemetery walks. “I guess I do a lot of dead people talking,” she says. This year Schneider portrays Mary Morrison.

Bunn will be portrayed by Andy VanDeVoort, a retired music and band teacher, who has acted in various productions. This will be his first cemetery walk. He taught in the Springfield school district and serves as bugler for the 114th Illinois Infantry, which performs the Flag Retreat at the Lincoln Tomb throughout the summer.

William Butler (1797-1876) was born in Kentucky. At the age of 15, he carried messages from the Kentucky governor to the commanding officer during the War of 1812. He served as a clerk on a steamboat before coming to Springfield in 1828. Here, he served as circuit clerk; he was the one who entered Abraham Lincoln’s admittance to the bar on the court record after Lincoln passed his law exam in 1836. Butler often invited Lincoln to his home for dinner. Butler also served as state treasurer, appointed by Gov. William Bissell in 1859, and was elected two additional times. Camp Butler cemetery is named after him.

Butler School, on the corner of MacArthur and Laurel streets, was built in 1921, also designed by Helmle and Helmle.

Butler will be portrayed by Pat Foster, an attorney for the state of Illinois for 40 years, who has acted in various productions and in previous cemetery walks. “I do my best to learn the script we’re furnished,” he says. “They’re always well-crafted and furnish the substance of the character. I also try to research the character’s era.”

Jesse Dubois (1811-1876) had been a neighbor of the Lincolns. He later was one of 15 directors of the National Lincoln Monument Association. At the age of 24 he served in the House of Representatives, and in 1856 was elected auditor of the state. Dubois and Butler knew each other and were listed in an 1863 newspaper report as honorary managers for the fifth annual festival commemorating Benjamin Franklin, held at the St. Nicholas Hotel.

Dubois School at 120 S. Lincoln has an interesting history. In 1867 Dubois, who lived at the current site of Sacred Heart Convent, bought land at the southeast corner of what is now Washington and Lincoln streets. The area was the original site of the Illinois State Fair in 1853 and then Camp Yates, a Civil War camp where Ulysses S. Grant reenlisted. A school was built, which burned down in 1891, then was rebuilt and called West Springfield School. In 1896 the city annexed the area and the Springfield school board took over the building, renaming it Dubois. By 1915, it and other schools had been condemned. Plans to build a new school in 1916 were delayed due to several factors – lack of funds, other schools being remodeled and the construction of a new high school. One wing opened in 1916. In 1917 the full construction was completed.

Dubois will be portrayed by Dennis Rendleman, his third year to participate in the cemetery walk. The connection of the site of Dubois School to Grant is fitting as Rendleman will be portraying Grant in a play opening in December. He says, “I don’t like to just memorize a script but talk from what I remember and sometimes use a book that has notes as a prompt. Last year that worked perfectly since I was portraying an attorney and had found a book that talked about the character.” Rendleman is the ethics counsel at the American Bar Association and commutes between Chicago and Springfield.

Maria Matheny (1828-1909) was the wife of James Matheny (1818-1890). Her father had been a circuit clerk who died when Maria was an infant. When her mother remarried to Colonel Edward Baker, they moved to Springfield. Maria was 3 years old. Baker was killed during the Civil War. In 1845 Maria married James, and they had seven children; four sons survived her. She was active in the First Methodist Church. She died of bronchitis at the age of 81.

James Matheny was a Sangamon County judge, circuit clerk and a lieutenant colonel in the Civil War. He was known to be a great orator. He served as Abraham Lincoln’s best man at his wedding in 1842. Matheny’s funeral is believed to have been the largest Springfield has ever seen except for Lincoln’s.

Matheny School was originally called Brainerd and stood at Capitol and Wheeler. It was rebuilt in 1909 by Helmle and Helmle and renamed Matheny. That building was located at 2200 E. Jackson St. At the end of the 2004-2005 school year, it was closed. At the start of the 2005-2006 school year, Withrow School at 1200 S. Pope became the Matheny-Withrow Elementary School.

Pat Foster at an earlier cemetery walk. This year he portrays William Butler, for whom Butler School is named.

Maria Matheny will be portrayed by Tracy Petro. This will be her fifth cemetery walk portrayal. Petro says, “I will be telling about Judge Matheny but also focus on Maria and her role in her husband’s success.” Petro is a clinical research coordinator for Clinical Radiologists.

Rebecca Woods (1810 or 1812-1865), an African-American servant of the Ridgely family, is buried in the Ridgely family plot. Nicholas Ridgely (1800-1888) operated the Ridgely Bank that stood at Fifth and Monroe. Woods was born in Maryland, Ridgely’s home state. A slave of Greenbury Ridgely, she was given to Greenbury’s son, Nicholas, as a wedding gift. She helped raise his 13 children from his two marriages but never herself married or had children. Woods was buried in Hutchinson Cemetery (now the site of Springfield High School) along with Ridgely family members. In 1874 bodies from the cemetery were moved to Oak Ridge. The current Ridgely School was built in 2005.

The first Ridgely School stood at 1013 Fair Grounds, now known as Sangamon Avenue, and in 1900 a new school was built on the present Eighth Street site.

Woods will be portrayed by Veronica “Roni” Betts who has been portraying characters at historic sites since 2010, including previous cemetery walks. She says, “I plan to talk about Rebecca but also about Ridgely who was a wonderful father and actually gave Rebecca a good life.” Betts will be wearing a dress of royal blue trimmed in black silk with a hat that matches. Betts says, “Sunday was Rebecca’s day off and she knew people and hobnobbed with many. My hat represents that she was a respectable church lady of her time.”

Rebecca Woods was remembered in the Illinois State Journal obituary: “Her familiar face was known to all our citizens and her genuine goodness of heart made her a general favorite. Her Sunday afternoon visits among the neighbors were regularly made for many years, and her coming was always hailed with pleasure by old and young alike.”

Malinda Benjamin Iles (1804-1866) was the wife of Elijah Iles (1796-1883), Springfield’s first storekeeper. Malinda was born in New York. Around 1818 she traveled on a flatboat on the Ohio River with her uncle and a couple named the Shaws to St. Louis. The uncle returned to New York to bring Malinda’s mother back but instead married her and stayed in New York. Malinda became a teacher of predominately French-speaking students in Cape Girardeau. The Shaws later moved close to Springfield; while Malinda was visiting them, she met Elijah. They married in 1824 and had two children. At the age of 88, Elijah Iles wrote Sketches of Early Life. About his wife he said, “She was my superior in intellect and I never realized her worth until she was gone, gone, gone from me forever.”

Iles School is at 1700 S. 15th St. The land was donated in 1870 and a two-room school was erected. Additions and remodeling occurred over the next 50 years. In 1920 another remodeling project started and in 1922 a new addition opened, designed by architect Murray Hanes. (His mother was on the school board. See Mary Morrison.)

Dennis Rendleman: “I don’t like to just memorize a script, but talk from what I remember and sometimes use a book that has notes as a prompt.” Pictured here from the 2018 cemetery walk, Rendleman this year portrays Jesse Dubois, who die

Malinda Iles will be portrayed by Mary Disseler. She says, “I was sent three possible people to enact and chose Malinda because I wanted to learn more about the beginnings of Springfield. I’ll speak as a very proud wife and speak to inform others of our colorful and enterprising founding fathers.” She will be dressed in a yellow calico dress from the Civil War era. Disseler is retired from state government and has devoted her time to serving as a living history interpreter. She volunteers at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and acts in various performances.

Mary Morrison (1880-1939) – The first opportunity most women had to cast ballots in local school elections throughout Illinois was in April 1892. Almost 20 years later, in 1911, two women – Mary Morrison and Ida Hanes – were elected to the Springfield school board. Morrison supported efforts of Superintendent Hugh Magill including building Springfield High School; Hanes opposed the superintendent. Morrison was characterized as a progressive, Hanes as a reactionary, according to newspaper accounts. Their disagreement came to a head in 1921 when Morrison voted against hiring an architect, Murray Hanes, Ida’s son. Both women served on the school board for many years, Hanes for 11 years and Morrison for 12 years. Each took a turn serving as board president.

In 1913, two years after Morrison and Hanes were elected to the school board, Governor Edward Dunne signed into law the right of Illinois women to vote in U.S. presidential elections, many years before that became a right of all women across the country.

Mary Morrison will be portrayed by Linda Schneider, office administrator for the UIS Office of the Provost. She has acted in all the cemetery walks except the first one. Schneider laughs, “I guess I do a lot of dead people talking.” She began acting in the 1970s and has had various roles in many local productions. She says, “Many times, when portraying a woman from our early history, the only information available is about her husband and children and so we must plan our presentations with that focus. By portraying Mary, I get to talk about her and her unique role in the community.”

Planning a cemetery walk

Planning for this event takes considerable work and attention to details. Susan Helm, who has been on the planning committee, says, “Not only do we need to find grave sites that are close enough to make a walk enjoyable for all, but we also must make sure that they aren’t too close together so people can hear only one actor at a time.”

Attention to accuracy is also important. Mike Kienzler researches and writes scripts for the enactors. Deb Iams helps the actors choose appropriate attire. Many volunteers assist in parking, transporting people to the gravesites, leading groups and working in the concession stands and check-in booth.

Mike Lelys, who will be retiring Oct. 4 after serving as director of Oak Ridge Cemetery for the past eight years, has been an instrumental part of the event. He offers space for the committee’s meetings, provides maps of the gravesites, arranges details for the day of the event, and makes sure the areas around the gravesites are spruced up for the walk. Helm says, “Mike has offered so much and doesn’t take credit for all he does. Without him, the planning would be much harder.”

The enactors must practice and determine their presentation, usually around 5-7 minutes in length. They decide if they will speak as the person being enacted or tell the story of the person. They choose appropriate dress to represent the time period and the person’s status.

Linda Schneider finds actors and actresses and says, “The work takes stamina since the actors are working nonstop for 3-4 hours, repeating their script for the groups of attendees. Last year I don’t think there was time to take a sip of water between presentations. And we really want people who are storytellers, which is somewhat different than acting.”

The Sangamon County Historical Society held an annual cemetery walk from 1996 to 2008; it was revived in 2015. Last year’s event drew an estimated 650 people to the Oak Ridge Cemetery, the second most visited cemetery in the United States, the first being Arlington National Cemetery. It has been the resting place for over 75,000 people, including Abraham Lincoln, whose tomb towers over the cemetery. Over one million people visit Oak Ridge annually from all over the United States and the world.

The Sangamon County Historical Society was established in 1961 with the mission to preserve and promote the history of Sangamon County. The society offers educational programs and tours and hosts monthly programs on topics of local history. A basic membership is $30 for a year and can be purchased at their website or by calling 217-525-1961.

About the cemetery walk
Sunday, Oct. 6 • 12 noon-4 p.m.
(last tour is at 3:15 p.m.)
Free. Donations accepted

Books published by the Sangamon County Historical Society will be available for purchase. Parking available below the hill of Lincoln’s Tomb. Shuttles will transport people in groups to the first gravesite. Participants will then walk to the other graves (around ½ mile). Allow two hours. Refreshments will be available for purchase at the African American History Museum at the entrance to the cemetery.

Cinda Ackerman Klickna has previously written articles about the Helmle and Helmle architects, the origin of school names, and the 2018 cemetery walk.